SWEETWATER COUNTY — Western Wyoming Community College has seen thousands of students walk through its hallways and it has seen many of those students walk across a graduation stage.
Over the weekend, Western Wyoming saw something it has never seen before: a national championship.
The Western wrestling team won the NJCAA National Championship on Saturday, March 4, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, for the school’s first national title since it was established in 1959.
Former Mustangs near and far celebrated the victory, praising the wrestlers, head coach Art Castillo and the athletics department for their efforts.
Former Western Wyoming Community College coach Steve Christiansen traveled from Arizona to meet the team on Saturday. Christiansen was the first wrestling coach at Western in 1991 before Western wrestling became a fulltime athletics program.
“It’s completing the circle from where it started to where we are today,” said Christiansen. “It was started as a ‘club status’ when Western wasn’t too happy with adding men’s athletics, but with help from Bud Nelson and Mac McCulley, who were the driving force in this, we built a strong athletic program in wrestling.”
Christiansen revealed that coaching wasn’t a profession for him at first since he worked 10-hour shifts at Wexpro Company. “Coaching came naturally to me and I fulfilled the need. Someone needed to do it. I did it and boy, was it a wild ride!” he expressed with a chuckle.
Christiansen also explained that coaches were unpaid volunteers and there was no funding from other organizations.
“We eventually proved that we’re viable and they gave the wrestling program a chance,” he shared. “After only two years of the program’s existence, a wrestler from Western took second in one of the final competitions. That was awesome.”
Christiansen said the program kept growing and growing because of the community’s support and confidence in the wrestlers.
“Last night, we couldn’t help but be watery-eyed because we thought of all the challenges we went through and how we overcame them,” he shared. “I saw how they embraced the competition. They’re truly good human beings and did a wonderful job.”
According to Christiansen, Castillo is “the perfect fit for a coach.”
“He wants them to commit and he knows how to motivate the kids,” Christiansen pointed out. “They do it right, they love each other and they support each other. They’ve never won a championship so it was nice to see that happen.
“We walked out of there knowing that we’re champions and it felt fantastic.”
Fredann Soto, a 2010 Western alumnae and current head volleyball coach at Western, said she is “incredibly proud of the coaches, and the team. Art, and his assistant coaches have done an amazing job with their student athletes and I am extremely happy for all of them.”
Andy McCulley, an assistant coach under Castillo from 2015-2017 and again from 2019-2020, talked about the commitment of the coaches.
“For Western to win the first National Championship as a team speaks a lot to the commitment from their coaching staff and their team. This did not happen overnight. The coaching staff with Art, Rick (Yoak) and Bill (Hodges) have had this goal for a long time and they never lost sight of the end goal,” he said.
Austin Waters, Green River resident and former wrestler at Western, said the work Castillo has done for the wrestling program is “incredible.”
“It’s incredible to see what Coach Art has built,” said Waters. “I was lucky enough to go through his program and seeing what he did then and the pay off now is awesome.”
Waters added, “He’s built a powerhouse team year in and year out. His team was finally able to reach the pinnacle of NJCAA success (Saturday). He is going to run with this championship and build an even bigger legacy in the years to come.”
Rock Springs resident Ryan Slaugh is a 2015 Western Wyoming Community College graduate who also witnessed the historic win.
“It’s been such a fantastic journey for Art and the guys,” said Slaugh. “It’s such a boost for the community.”
Slaugh worked alongside with Castillo as an assistant coach before working full-time at Genesis Alkali. Castillo was also Slaugh’s best man in his wedding.
“I still follow him and cheer him on,” Slaugh shared. “I still follow him and continue to cheer him on.
“The school, as a whole, is amazing. It’s a big family. Everyone is a part of it, including past wrestlers. The impact Coach Art has on everyone and what he has done with the program is just amazing. Being a part of it is so much fun.
“I believe we’ll be on top for a while,” he noted. “(Castillo) has been in my corner and he’s guided me in the right direction. He’s a great leader.”
Slaugh’s son is almost 2 years old, but it’s not too soon to picture him as part of the Western family, according to Slaugh.
“I hope my son follows in those footsteps. He’s already a big fan!” he said.
“I’ll be a Mustang forever.”